No sooner had I posted a bit of a tirade yesterday on what I’m coming to think of as the “new ageism,” than this popped up in my email inbox:
“Hello. […] Productions is producing a documentary for PBS on the Baby Boomer generation slated to air 2007. I am reaching out to you in search of inspirational and extraordinary stories to include in our program. Stories that would contradict the idea that "there are no second acts in American lives" (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Stories about exemplary Baby Boomers who embody these characteristics - anti-authoritarian, idealistic, innovative and self empowered.
”We'd love to hear some amazing Boomer stories.”
Apart from the fact that the writer has already made my point today by erroneously assuming that a blog about aging must be written by a baby boomer, the producers of the documentary, along with all mainstream media, are redefining old age as ending at 60, relegating everyone older to cultural death by media neglect.
Before the boomers turned 60, media stories about elders didn’t get beyond health problems and the politics of entitlements. Now, boomers are “amazing, inspirational, extraordinary, exemplary, anti-authoritarian, idealistic, innovative and self-empowered” and anyone who isn’t, or is older, has been made twice invisible - first through the historic ageism of the youth culture and now through the new ageism of boomer chic.
Setting up boomers as exemplars of aging and concentrating attention only on those who exhibit extraordinary (usually physical) accomplishment is another desperate cultural attempt to deny the facts of aging with continued segregation of elders who don’t meet these criteria.
Further, this narrow interpretation of age - imitation of youth - discourages public discussion of the real changes and limitations that accompany aging, and dismisses the extraordinary personal growth that only old age can bestow.
Advancements in 20th century science blessed us with longevity unknown in the history of the world. If we allow these extra years to be ignored, elders are doomed to continued marginalization and the culture loses the experience, judgment and wisdom the burgeoning numbers of elders can contribute to the overall well-being of our communities, large and small.
Geriatrician William H. Thomas makes a distinction between "adults," whom he describes as those in their most active mid-years, and elders, those whose child-raising is over and whose careers have wound down. He deplores the cultural imperative for old people to behave as adults or be tossed aside.
“We cannot and will never be adults forever," writes Thomas. "To attempt such a thing is to invite repeated and progressive failure into our lives. Worst of all, the cult of adulthood slathers these failures with shame and demands that, whenever possible, they be hidden from others.”
- - William H. Thomas, M.D., What Are Old People For?
The definition of age as decline, debility and disease has not changed. It’s just been moved forward a few years to accommodate boomers’ delusion of eternal youth.
It’s easy to tell from the email that the producers of the PBS documentary have decided to perpetuate that delusion before they’ve shot an inch of tape. And as PBS still maintains a shred or two of its reputation for integrity, this boomer program will be hailed as progress in the cultural attitude toward elders. Don’t be fooled. It’s just a new version of the same old ageism.